In Cardiff, Wales in 1952, Mahmood Mattan, a young Somali sailor, is accused of a crime he did not commit: the brutal killing of Violet Volacki, a shopkeeper from Tiger Bay. At first, Mahmood believes he can ignore the fingers pointing his way; he may be a gambler and a petty thief, but he is no murderer. He is a father of three, secure in his innocence and his belief in British justice. But as the trial draws closer, his prospect for freedom dwindles. Now, Mahmood must stage a terrifying fight for his life, with all the chips stacked against him: a shoddy investigation, an inhumane legal system, and, most evidently, pervasive and deep-rooted racism at every step.
Mohamed balances colonial history and violence with the evocative interior lives of Mahmood and Violet Volacki ... Mohamed brilliantly depicts the complexities of community within the Black diaspora ... After Mahmood’s arrest, the novel shifts its focus to the British criminal justice system, providing a visceral account of the protagonist’s carceral experience. We feel his eye twitching in response to the camera that takes his mug shot, as well as all the physical and psychic tolls of living in a cell as the clock ticks toward his execution, as his appeals for retrial are denied ... Mohamed manages such tender detail even while zooming out on the British prison and court systems more broadly.
... an extraordinary novel ... As a work of historical fiction, Mohamed’s novel is equally informative and moving. While the details of her story are drawn from news accounts and court records, the interior portraits stem from her own deeply sympathetic imagination. The resulting confluence of fact and fiction provides a damning indictment of judicial racism. But with a vision that exceeds this one tragic case, The Fortune Men also plumbs the existential plight of so many similar victims. The immediate allure of the novel is the vibrancy of Mohamed’s prose, her ability to capture the complicated culture of Cardiff and the sound of tortured optimism ... Hovering close to Mahmood’s thoughts, The Fortune Men conveys the mix of deprivation and harassment that exhausts unemployed laborers ... the crux of Mohamed’s artistry: Her clear-eyed acknowledgment of this man’s self-pity runs parallel to her piercing exposure of his society’s relentless, enervating prejudice ... The horrific finale of The Fortune Men is never in doubt, but for more than 200 pages Mohamed still creates a sharp sense of suspense by pulling us right into Mahmood’s world as his life tilts and then crashes.
It’s a grim, desperate and horribly familiar story, and The Fortune Men, Nadifa Mohamed’s blistering novel about the case, could have been written in a bleak, sober style to match. The fact that it isn’t is something of a triumph on the part of the author ... The Fortune Men can be read as a comment on 21st-century Britain and its continued troubled legacy of empire, but also as a beautifully judged fiction in its own right — teeming with life, character and humour, and, particularly, evocative of place ... Mohamed...moves faultlessly from the cacophony of Butetown to describe the claustrophobia, camaraderies and hostilities of prison, where Mattan is now incarcerated and awaiting trial. Memory provides a rich landscape to counter the mundanity and anxiety of his days ... The Fortune Men is a novel on fire, a restitution of justice in prose.